Computer Assisted Laboratory Research

James A. Muncy, Clemson University
ABSTRACT - Though computers have been used extensively in consumer research for analysis, their uses in laboratory settings have been limited. The current paper discusses the use of computers in laboratory consumer research. Specifically it focuses on the use of computers to present the similus and/or record the response. Relevant topics such as analog-to-digital conversion are also discussed.
[ to cite ]:
James A. Muncy (1989) ,"Computer Assisted Laboratory Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 79-80.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 79-80


James A. Muncy, Clemson University


Though computers have been used extensively in consumer research for analysis, their uses in laboratory settings have been limited. The current paper discusses the use of computers in laboratory consumer research. Specifically it focuses on the use of computers to present the similus and/or record the response. Relevant topics such as analog-to-digital conversion are also discussed.


Computers have been used extensively in consumer research for purposes such as gathering data, inputing data, analyzing data, and developing presentations of the results. However, their use in laboratory consumer research has been limited. Though some studies exist which have used computers in laboratory settings, overall, there is much greater potential for their use in such an environment. The current paper discusses- the use of the computer in laboratory consumer research.

In such a laboratory setting, there are generally three elements (the three elements of the classic black box model): the stimulus, the subject, and the response. Since the computer is very seldom used as the subject (except in instances of simulation), it is usually associated with either the stimulus or the response. Thus. the computers greatest potential in laboratory consumer research is in either presenting the stimulus, measuring the response, or both presenting the stimulus and measuring the response. Each of these uses will be discussed individually.


The computer can be used to either present the stimulus directly (i.e. through a display on its monitor or through computer generated sound), or can be used to control other devices which are presenting the stimulus (e.g., VCRs, slide shows, audio equipment). There are two primary advantages of using the computer to present the stimuli of an experiment. First computers afford greater accuracy in stimulus presentation, both in terms of timing and consistency across subjects. This reduces error variance that can result from slight variations in stimulus presentation from subject to subject and allows the researcher to make finer stimulus differences across experimental groups. The other major advantage is that the stimulus can be changed and/or randomized much more easily. Differences across groups can be obtained by simply programming the computer to either randomly or systematical}y present different stimuli to different groups.

Though stimulus presentation can be facilitated greatly through the use of computers, there are two major challenges to their use in this way. First, it is often difficult to keep from intimidating subjects. This is particularly true if subjects are drawn from a pool of individuals who do not typically interact with computers. My personal experience has been that this problem is minimal when using student subjects. A second related problem is that it is more difficult to create some degree of realism when the computer is presenting the stimuli. For example, people typically do not read package information from computers. Though package information acquisition research can be done through computers, it must always be remembered that consumers are not reading this information in the way that they normally do.

One other way that the computer can be useful for stimulus presentation is that it can be used to develop the stimulus. For example, one might be interested in studying the effectiveness of an advertisement based on the presence or absence of certain claims made in the advertisement and the interaction effects of these advertising claims. One might use a factoral design where each of four factors represented the presence or absence of a claim. In this instance, he or she would need to develop sixteen versions of the advertisements. With recent advances in word processing and desktop publishing, this becomes a relatively easy and straightforward task.


Computers can also be used to measure the responses of the subjects. There are three primary advantages to their use in this manner. First, given that computers have an internal clock, it is much easier to make time a variable in the study. For example, response latency has sometimes been used as a measure of the degree of cognitive processing. Such measures though difficult to obtain otherwise, are easy to obtain through the use of the computer. Second, "continuous" measures can be taken much more easily. For example, physiological responses such as skin resistance, brain wave activity, respiration, etc. are continuous. Through computerizing the data collection process, the recorded nature of these responses can approximate their true continuous nature. Third, when the computer is used to collect the data, this data is entered directly into the computer. Beyond sometimes making the data entry process easier, this has the advantage of reducing (or totally eliminating) any data entry mistakes. I emphasize sometimes because it has been my experience that it is often more difficult to program the computer to collect the data than it is to simply have a research assistant enter it directly into the computer.

Data acquisition techniques via the computer differ depending upon the requirements placed on the subjects and the continuity of the data.

Requirements on the Subjects

Based on the requirements on the subject, measured responses can either be cognitively mediated responses or psychophysiological responses. Cognitively mediated responses imply that consumers must, through thinking about the task, come up with the response that is then recorded by the computer. Though this is by far the most common way of data collection in consumer research, it is possible to collect responses that are not cognitively mediated but rather occur naturally. The majority of these responses are physiological in nature (eye movement, heart rate, brain waves, skin resistance, etc.). Though there are numerous potential problems with such physiological measures, in some settings, they may be much more appropriate than cognitively mediated responses.

Continuity of Data

The other way of catorgorizing the response is based on the continuity of the data gathered. Some data is continuous across both time and intensity of response. Other data is not continuous across either time or intensity of response. Data that is not continuous across either time or intensity is much easier to collect. If the data is noncontinuous across time, then it is just a matter of measuring the intensity of the response at the specific time that the response was made. For example, if one were interested in excitation at the point of a response, then he or she might take some physiologic al measures at some reference point in time (e.g., before the study begins) and then take those measures again at the point of interest. Also, responses that are noncontinuous across intensity are much easier to collect. This implies that when intensity changes it changes in discrete increments. Thus one need only measure the time when the intensity changed and, perhaps the level that the intensity was changed from or to. Finally, if time is not an issue, then responses are also easy to obtain.

When measures are continuous across both time and intensity of response then data collection becomes more complicated. Somehow, the continuous nature of either the time or the response level must be changed. This can be done by either "holding time constant" or "holding the level of the response constant." "Analog to digital conversion" typically occurs when time is held constant. This is done through a technique called "sampling." This means that, at predetermined time intervals, measures of intensity of response are taken. For example, in a study that was recently conducted in my laboratory, subjects were asked to indicate affectivity in response to an advertisement in a way similar to the warmth monitor of Aaker, Stayman, and Hagerty (1986). Subjects responses were continuous across time. To convert these measures to data that were easier to record and analyze, we "sampled" their response every .5 seconds. Thus, though the intensity level remained continuous, there were only 120 measurements at specific times in a one minute testing

Alteratively, one could allow time to vary in a "continuous" manner and hold intensity or level of response constant. For example, one might have a predetermined response level threshold that when he subjects response either went above or below the time was recorded. One might also be able to take some continuous measure of response, and when some cumulative level was reached, then the time was recorded. There are numerous examples of these approaches in psychophysiological research, but their discussion is beyond the scope of the current paper.


Probably the most promising use of the computer in laboratory consumer research occurs when the computer is used to both present the stimulus and measure the response. In addition to having all the potential advantages discussed above, this also allows the researcher to set up an interactive laboratory setting where the presentation of the stimulus is contingent upon the previous response of the subject. For example, one might be able to use a program such as Hypercard on the Macintosh to develop a simulated shopping trip. Here, the consumer could first be presented with a set of stores from which to choose. Upon selecting a specific store, the consumer would be presented with a floor plan of that store. The specific floor plan would be dependent upon which store the consumer selected. The consumer would then be carried through the process, going from area of the store to area of the store, product to product, brand to brand, and back from store to store where each floor plan, section, brand, product, is presented to the subject based on the subject's previous responses. At any point in time, what the consumer would be looking at would be determined by the series of responses that preceded that particular point in time. This type of research setting is not significantly different from what actually occurs when a consumer goes on a shopping trip. What the consumer is looking at is determined, to a large extent, by previously made decisions. Thus, by allowing stimulus/response interaction, the computer can come closer to approaching the realism of an actual shopping trip.

Stimulus/response interaction can also be used to simplify the task for subjects. For example, in our laboratory we are currently working on a study where subjects indicate salient attributes in a choice setting and then these salient attributes are presented in a paired comparison rating task. After inputting the salient attributes, it is a relatively easy task to have the computer derive all of the paired comparisons and then present them to the subjects one pair at a time. Rather than having the subjects or the experimenter derive the pairs at the time of the study, all subjects need to do is input the salient attributes, and then the computer presents them with pairs to compare, one pair at a time. This has, in essence, taken a complex task and made it simple.


The current paper has not discussed all of the possible applications of the computer in laboratory consumer research. However, it has discussed some of the major areas that have aided my research. It is hoped that this discussion will encourage researchers to try some of these techniques and to develop new innovative techniques of their own.


Aaker, David A., Douglas M. Stayman, and Michael R. Hagerty (1986), "Warmth in Advertising: Measurement, Impact, and Sequence Effects." Journal of Consumer Research, 12 (March), 365